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In their own words: The filmmakers of Hidden Lives Illuminated talk about prison and their art

August 14, 2019 Category: FeaturedLongMediaPurpose
Last time Generocity wrote about Hidden Lives Illuminated —  20 films made by incarcerated filmmakers that will be projected on the external walls of Eastern State Penitentiary starting tomorrow through September 12 — we interviewed ESP’s Project Lead Sean Kelley and focused on the three-year process of developing the series.

But we wanted to know more. Not long after the first interview, Kelley offered Generocity the opportunity to speak with the filmmakers directly. At the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Chester, they set up stations to show their films, and to answer our  questions.

And as we made our way around the room to talk with the inmates, both individually and in groups, our discussions became more than just a conversation about their films.

Hidden Lives Illuminated; Ezra watches his animation sequence play in a zoetrope cylinder during classes at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Chester.

Focus of the films

We wanted to hear about the message each filmmaker wanted to convey to the audience, and we wondered how they determined which aspect of their lives to focus on.

Braheem L.: “I wanted to show my sons’ side, and how they feel with me being away for so long. They’re only four months apart. They were 9 months and 5 month [then] … they’re 21 now.”

Alexander S.: “Mine is basically a memory. I didn’t have any pictures of anything, so everything I did was drawing. I drew everything out. I feel like I just tried to show something people could find relatable to somebody on the inside, and show that somehow people are the same; people have [made] mistakes and childish moments.”

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Justino G.:  “The title ‘Piano Priest’ is obvious, but I chose that form of media [pictures] because I’m not a good artist in terms of sketching — that’s initially how they wanted me to go. I felt [that] the fact that I’m not a good artist would take away from the powerful images of who’s actually playing, so I was fortunate enough where they allowed me to use actual images of  [my son] playing. It’s not quite finished, but now I’m excited, and I’m just proud of everybody here. Everybody’s film is wonderful.”

Jerome L.: “What I was trying to do is tell the picture of my life. What I’ve seen through my eyes as a young man coming up in what was considered the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia. Seeing drugs, violence, and things of that nature at a young age eventually led me into that path, which led me to prison.”

Qwasheem R.: “I was diagnosed with cancer when I was 21. Now I’m 28, and I was declared cancer free, but it’s still … the trials I went through without my family being there with me, being in prison, being positive. Nobody else was going through this except me.”

Marvin S.: “My name is Marvin S. I’m from Logan. My documentary is called ‘Between two courts’. It’s about a life of going back and forth from basketball to the criminal justice system. I did it basically to let my daughter know how sorry I was not to be a part of her life.”

Joe K.: “My film is titled ‘There he was, There he is’, and this story about my life is like ‘then and now’. I wanted to put something about myself that you [the audience] might not have known. You look at my criminal records, it’s like ‘Ah, I see what he did. This guy’s a bad guy,’ but you don’t know where I came from. I just wanted to get that story out there. I wanted to deliver a message.”

Student filmmakers respond to seeing their drawings animated in a zoetrope cylinder during classes at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Chester.

Opening up

The filmmakers spoke openly about the art they created. We wondered whether they found it difficult to write them, especially when choosing to focus on loved ones impacted by their incarceration?

Rob T.: “We grew in here, and we became men. We accepted our responsibilities and held ourselves accountable, but us opening up is for people to see ‘We’re human too.’ We make mistakes, but we’re human too. We have families just like the everyday person. We go through things that everybody goes through on a daily basis …. maybe even more than other people because after 9 o’clock, the phones go off, so you can’t reach out to your family. There’s only certain times you can talk to them. So, for me, opening up was to let people see ‘Though I am incarcerated, I’m still a father. My son still misses me. He still loves me.’ That was my biggest thing.”

Braheem L.: “I wanted to show [my sons’] aspect of it, not just mine. I never really got a chance to see them express themselves without me asking questions. So, me seeing from their perspective just opened my eyes up to ‘They need me out there.’”

Brian H.: “For my daughters …. My youngest, she always has dance recitals, she’s very talented. My oldest daughter, she’s very talented, she can draw. She’s a very good artist. When I miss these opportunities with them, as far as seeing her dance recital and seeing my daughter do her art displays, I wanted to show them that I’m always thinking about them. I let them know ‘I’m cheering for you even though I’m not there.’ That’s my biggest thing. I just want them to know that ‘Even though I’m not there, I love you very very much.’ It’s a conversation that I constantly should have with my daughters. It’s very important.”

Alexander S.: “My film was about myself, but I think all their films were about people they care about. I think that was big of them. I think that took a lot of heart and a lot of courage. For them to make themselves open up to vulnerability. I think it took a lot of courage.”

Justino G.: “I really wanted to pay homage to my son and his dedication to his craft. He loves [music]. He does it all day long, and so I thought it was very very important for me to let him know, even in spite of this situation, every chance I get I’m going to let him know that I love him. This is a way for me to do that.”

Clarence S.: “Mine was called ‘Through Her, I live’. It’s about leukemia, and the strength that [my niece] had to live on for eight years, knowing that her life would be claimed through a disease that’s by chance not choice. It help me grow in here and become a better person, and just strive tot get back to my family.”

Jerome L.: “The message I was trying to send to the youth out there is that this is not the path that you want to take. Being out there on the streets. [I] try to see if I can make a change in their life, so they don’t make the same pit falls that I made. These prison doors become revolving doors. Being in and out, in and out, in and out. That’s the message I was trying to get across.”

Qwasheem R.: “I  had a lot of times where I was sick, and I got a lot of help. They felt for me. From that struggle, I learned how to live. It shows you how to live life, and shows you to be a better person. I had a friend [fellow inmate] with sickle cell. I feel like he was worse off than me. He was nonchalant about it like I was nonchalant about mine. I never was [so] hurt that I couldn’t walk. He was hurt. He couldn’t even get up. He was dizzy or he couldn’t walk. So it’s like, we all go through struggles. It’s only me and him. There’s a couple of people I found out, and I met, that went through different sicknesses. I think that story needs to be told.”

Marvin S.: “Well at first, I was kind of selfish. I was trying to do something real quick. Get it out the way. But as I started doing it more and more, I said ‘This is something she could always have of me saying ‘My fault.’ I wasn’t there as much as I could have been. So, I really got into it. Then, I paint the pictures for what I wanted to do and wanted to say. That’s what I went off of.”

Hidden Lives Illuminated; Paul watches his animation sequence play in a zoetrope cylinder during classes at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Chester.

Thoughts on responsibility

Jerome L.: “I was a product of my environment, but at the same time I still take responsibility for my own actions. I don’t try to shift it, or none of that, because my brothers and sisters have done tremendous things in their lives. On one side of the equation, I was a product of my environment. On the other side of the equation, I still chose that path.”

Donyea P.: “Life took over. Family problems, in and out of foster care my whole life, and then you have ‘street life.’ In impoverished [communities] there’s not really an investment in youth programs where I could hide from my issues at home. I wanted to go to an afterschool program, but I didn’t want to go home. As they say, ‘Life took over’.”

Joe K.: “They [the prison] have this thing here every year, called ‘The day of responsibility’. This year, they selected me to facilitate it, and the topic we chose was ‘Negative influences of Neighborhoods.” I think that coincides with a lot of the things that I experienced growing up. For instance, I was influenced by somebody, and these dudes that I hang around, I influence them. So the people that I looked up to showed me what they know. Then, the people who looked up to me, I showed them what I know, which is what I was taught.

“I like to liken it to playing basketball. People get drafted, they play basketball, and then what happens is, once they start getting old, they start riding the bench a little bit. The people in the game, they go to jail. There’s always a new player to take their position. They take their position, and they’re the new guys. Then, over time, they end up at the bench. That’s how the cycle goes.”

Hidden Lives Illuminated; Guest instructor Lowell Boston teaches student filmmakers zoetrope animation during classes at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Chester.

The need for mentors

We discussed how to help young people at risk of incarceration. There seemed to be a consensus about the need for mentors. Some of the men we spoke to said they did not have mentors to steer them away from the streets, others spoke more in depth about this.

Jerome L.: “People want to see people they can identify with […] The youth can identify an individual they feel as though ‘ain’t cut like that,’ as we would say in the streets. In order for us to try to reach those youth, it needs to come from individuals they can identify with.”

Marvin S.: “When I was growing up, we had school trips. We went on trips to the National Institute of Science and stuff like that. This is stuff that helped me, educational-wise, later on. I don’t even think they’re doing that now. What do the inner city youth get? What do we do? I wish I could talk to them.

“When they come in here, I try to talk to them. Especially if they’re sports minded. I get their attention that way. Cause a lot of them know I played college basketball. A lot of them [have] seen clips of me. I try to steer the conversation into ‘What you going to do when you leave?’ When you see more and more guys hustling, and that’s all you see, and that’s the only success you see as a youth, then they think that’s the only way.”

Hidden Lives Illuminated; Animation classes at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Chester, fall 2018.

On prison life

Prison is not meant to be comfortable, however, the public doesn’t really understand the issues inmates deal with while incarcerated. Many times they don’t have a way to channel their energy, or may find it hard to keep themselves grounded. They can be affected by lack of connection with the outside world or loved ones. We asked them to speak on these issues for us.

Jerome L.: “Let me show you some things here [in the film]. See those footprints? If you notice you got two different footprints. One’s in feet, and one’s in shoes. That’s the Lord helping me, carrying me. You’ll see the ‘PTSD’ pop up over the door [in the film]. PTSD stands for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There’s no difference in an individual going to the service. When an individual comes to prison, if you’re doing two to five years, and you getting in fights, trying to protect your manhood, trying to do this and that …. Oh, it ain’t no question you develop post traumatic stress disorder.

“So you look at a person that’s been down for 20 or 30 years, event though he may look sane, he still suffers some form of post traumatic stress disorder. Because he can get so overwhelmed at times. In prison, you lash out, you go to the whole.”

Qwasheem R.: “If you have a loved one in prison, check on them. It was my mom who pressured me to get my lymph nodes [checked]. My story is about that lymph node, that’s where they found my cancer. […] I think if it wasn’t for my family, I might be gone. When it was confirmed, I didn’t even want to tell them, but I had to.”

A screen-capture from the documentary about the participants in Hidden Light Illuminated show one of the filmmakers’ flip-books.

A final message

As interview time was wrapping up, we asked Joe K., the last filmmaker we spoke with, if there was anything about the project or about himself he wanted to say before we called it a day:

Joe K.: “What I would love to say is that there’s a different side to me than my criminal record displays. I don’t say this to brag, or to be boastful, but I have long criminal record, and its not anything to be proud of. It’s just like, ‘How do I change the cycle?’

“I’m not saying that I’m going to go home, and be a community activist, but I will look at things in a different light. I knew I was part of the problem, and that was the easiest part. The hardest part is becoming part of the solution. Cause the voice matters.

“It’s important to listen to what other people have to say.”


Artist’s rendering of Hidden Lives Illuminated, using a still image from “Last Day of Freedom,” directed by Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman.

You can see the films of the filmmakers Generocity spoke to for this story during different weeks of the one-month run of Hidden Lives Illuminated:

Week 1
Qwasheem R. — “Lymph Nodes”

Week 2
Marvin S. — “Between Two Courts”
Joe K . —“There He is, There He was”

Week 3
Braheem L. — “My Boys”
Alexander S.—  “The Bus Stop”
Justino G. — “Piano Priest”
Clarence S.— “Through Her, I Live”
Robert T. — “A Special Person”
Brian H. — “Dear Time”

Week 4
Jerome L. — “Justice”
Donyea P. — “Big Boy Shoes”

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